A Near­ly Per­fect Copy

  • Review
By – January 25, 2013

A spe­cial­ist in sev­en­teenth- through nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry prints, Elm — short for Elmi­ra — How­ells car­ries on the fam­i­ly tra­di­tion, work­ing at the dis­tin­guished Man­hat­tan auc­tion house her great-grand­fa­ther found­ed. In Paris anoth­er heir to fam­i­ly tra­di­tion, Gabriel Con­nois, great-grand­son of a not­ed artist, rails against the cur­rent art scene as he attempts to estab­lish his paint­ing career. For Elm, obsessed by the death of her beloved young son in the tsuna­mi that swept across Thai­land, every day is a strug­gle against mem­o­ries she can’t and won’t erase. Every day for Gabriel rais­es ques­tions about what direc­tion, if any, his life and art are tak­ing. In this high­ly plot­ted nov­el Alli­son Amend, author of a prize-win­ning col­lec­tion of short sto­ries and the nov­el Sta­tions West, places Elm and Gabriel in sit­u­a­tions that first offer them answers but that ulti­mate­ly lead them into deep­er problems. 

Elm and Gabriel nev­er meet in the course of the nov­el, but they both make emo­tion­al­ly and moral­ly com­pli­cat­ed deci­sions that con­nect them. These deci­sions, run­ning on par­al­lel paths, draw them into a sophis­ti­cat­ed art forgery ring that exploits the Holo­caust. Against this back­ground Amend weaves sym­pa­thy, ambi­tion, decep­tion, loss, and fam­i­ly into a dense tapes­try that ulti­mate­ly unrav­els and threat­ens all that is most impor­tant to Elm and Gabriel.

With a sharp eye for social detail, Amend draws telling set­tings in New York and Paris and opens the door on a hushed Euro­pean lab­o­ra­to­ry that prac­tices cloning and the com­mer­cial side of the high-stakes art world. At times Elm and Gabriel feel like char­ac­ters cre­at­ed to ani­mate these set­tings and the eth­i­cal ques­tions they raise; nei­ther is ful­ly sym­pa­thet­ic or round­ed, and their fam­i­lies, friends, and asso­ciates play spe­cif­ic sup­port­ing roles in Elm’s and Gabriel’s intense­ly per­son­al dra­mas. But the intri­cate dou­ble plot, played out against well-researched details of art forgery, and the painful per­son­al ties move the sto­ry along at a good pace. Amend’s writ­ing is sure and accom­plished, and teas­ing out the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Elm’s and Gabriel’s con­flicts pro­vokes thought­ful reading.

A Kvetchy Correspondence

Read Alli­son Amend’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions